United Arab Emirates

Dubai at nightThis week I have been in Dubai taking part in the “iThink Therefore iPad?” conference as a keynote speaker. The conference was attended by an enthusiastic gathering of local school leaders and teachers who have implemented 1:1 iPad and other tablet device programmes within their school. This presented me with a terrific opportunity to meet a broad range of educators working in the region.


You could hardly think of a greater contrast of Dubai when compared to my earlier visits to Ghana and Cuba. A city of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is the playground of the wealthy or those aspiring to be wealthy drawn to the city by the seemingly endless opportunities presented by staggering growth and investment in construction and infrastructure. It feels like the Singapore of the Middle East – where the pinnacle of the capitalist dream meets Arabic ambition. Dubai is one of the seven emirates and has emerged as a sprawling cosmopolitan metropolis that is a global city providing a cultural and business hub for the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Adopting a Western style business approach the emirates drives its economy through tourism, aviation, financial services and real estate.


Dubai is a place of innovative construction projects from the worlds tallest building to man made islands and even a domed snow and ski resort. For some, however, it’s not all as glitzy as it appears and like many thrusting capitalist nations it has been criticized for the treatment of its mainly South Asian workers who reside in the more favela like districts outside the city limits which most us will never see. 


Rated as one of the best cities in the Middle East to live in it seems that almost everybody or at least every culture is represented. And there lies the crux of the official part of my visit for Learning {RE}imagined.


The majority of the teachers that I met at the conference were either British or Australian many attracted to Dubai by significantly increased salary opportunities as well as quality of life. A teacher confided in me that 6 years ago he was literally living on pennies as a teacher in London after meeting his rent, travel and subsistence on an entry level salary. Today he lives in a private villa with its own swimming pool and drives an American sports car. Dubai is a work hard, play hard culture and he loves his job. There was a consensus amongst the teachers that I met that the working week in Dubai is brutal but the weekends and lifestyle are a compensation. Of course, everyones time in Dubai is limited. You can be here for 30 years but eventually you will need to return home. Unless you are an Emirati you’re a temporary fixture.


Whilst there are a number of public schools that serve the children of Emirati and expatriate Arab communities the majority of the schools in Dubai are private, serving the children of the majority population of expatriate workers from Europe, Asia, America and beyond. This creates a certain dynamic in regard to educational provision where parents are customers who vote with their wallet. Whilst unfettered from the kind of league tables and government inspections typical found in the UK competition in Dubai to get “bums on seats” is fierce. 


The government in Dubai does make annual inspections to each school and the results are published but the pressure really comes from the parents who almost without exception are seeking an “authentic Harry Potter experience” for their children that promises to deliver their kids at the end of it with a complete set of high test scores and examination passes. This leaves very little room for innovative teaching practice or deployment of digital platforms given that at the end of the day in a free market economy it’s only the test scores that matter. Showing off a bit of technology or 1:1 iPad programmes look good on the website when pitching for parents hard-earned cash but if the test results don’t match the school fees it won’t matter.


Herein lies the challenge for educators in Dubai, how do you innovate with or without technology in what is both a government and market-force regulated sector. Innovation is by nature risky and who is prepared to risk test scores when in reality they are what pay your salary and keep you in laa laa land?


Dubai_by_day.JPGMy photographic team join me this weekend and we will be meeting the Group Chief Technology Officer of GEMS Education, Herve Marchet. Before joining GEMS Herve was the Director of Apple’s EMEA Education Markets so knows one or two things about deploying technology in educational environments at least from an Apple perspective. GEMS Education has a history of high profile hirings and is clearly serious about being the major player in private education in this region and beyond. GEMS operates a number of schools in the region catering for different parental budgets as well as offering a choice of curriculum including the International Baccalaureate and England’s National Curriculum. That in itself is an innovation, the fact that in an international context like this you can pick and choose the curriculum that you would like your child to be processed through.


I’m looking forward also to visiting a number of GEMS schools to gain an insight into private education provision within a multi-cultural, multi-contextual environment.


But first some sight-seeing!